On Corfu: Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, & Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic

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Our life on this promontory has become like some flawless Euclidean statement.”–Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell

I am pretending to be in Corfu.

I would love to be on a Greek island right now.

A commenter at my post on Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet recommended Durrell’s travel books, among them  Prospero’s Cell, a memoir/history of Corfu that includes journal entries, poetry, history, a travel guide, dialogue, and letters.

Durrell writes lyrical, dense, rhythmic, imaginative prose. You either fall in love with it or you don’t.  In the passage below,  he writes unconventional fragments about the sea.

The sea’s curious workmanship:  bottle-green glass sucked smooth and porous by the waves:  vitreous sells:  wood stripped and cleaned, and bark swollen with salt a bead:  sea-charcoal, brittle and sticky:  fronds of bladderwort with their greasy marine skin and reptilian feel:  rocks, gnawed and rubbed:  sponges, heavy with tear:  amber:  bone:  the sae.

Durrell Prospero's Cell A1ILhrTQcnLDurrell, his wife Nancy, and his mother and siblings moved to Corfu in 1935 and stayed for five years.   Both Durrell and his younger brother, Gerald, wrote about Corfu.  After World War II broke out, the family fled and Lawrence ended up in Alexandria, Egypt, where hw wrote Prospero’s Cell.

Lawrence Durrell describes the gorgeous island and their idyllic life of writing, gardening, picnicking, swimming, and climbing cliffs.  He also captures the intensity of the conversation of their many friends, who share information about Corfu’s history and myths.

The mythic traditions are the most interesting to me.  There is a rich tradition that Corfu is the home of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Durrell’s elegant friend the Count, a wealthy, hospitable man, explains at length his theory.  Among other thing, he claims that Sycorax, the name of Caliban’s mother, is an anagram for Corcyra (the Greek for Corfu).

Durrell descibes mythic spots associated with The Odyssey.  Three towns claim to be the site of the site of the meeting of Odysseus/Ulysses and Nausicaa.

In this landscape observed objects still retain a kind of mythological form–so that though chronologically we are separated from Ulysses by hundreds of years in time, yet we dwell in his shadow.  Like earnest mastodons petrified in the forests of their own apparatus the archaeologists come and go, each with his pocket Odyssey and his lack of modern Greek.

Durrell maintains that it is the fishermen who “ratify” the existence of Ulysses and that the poem applies to the culture of Modern Greeks very well. He also tells the story of a fisherman who stays up past midnight when his daughter reads her school book about Ulysses.  They had never heard of The Odyssey, and are surprised to learn that this epic is read in England.

He also writes about the island saint, Spiridion, the olive trees, and Edward Lear’s drawings of Corfu.

(By the way, this is available as an e-book.)

In Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a very light memoir of the family’s time in Corfu, I chortled over the eccentric Durrell family’s idiosyncracies.

When they arrive in Corfu, a taxi driver takes them under his wing and helps them find a villa with a bathroom, his mother’s only requirement.  They live a leisurely, idyllic life there.  Mrs. Durrell cooks exotic meals, Larry (Lawrence) gets fat and complains that the world will be deprived of his deathless prose when he is interrupted by a donkey braying and his brother Leslie taking pot shots out the window at birds, their sister, Margo, spends all her time dieting and driving men crazy in her bikinis, and Gerald, the youngest, is obsessed with animals and spends hours in the garden watching animals and insects.

I love their pets:  Gerald raises a pigeon who believes he is a human being, and refuses to fly.  The pigeon takes walks with them (and puffs himself out with pride).  Eventually he lays an egg.  He is a she!

At one point Larry forces his mother to find another villa because he has invited eight guests and there isn’t enough room.

It is very comical.  Nothing like Lawrence Durrell’s books!  Gerald is very simple and charming.

Mary Stewart this-rough-magicSet on Corfu, Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, a Gothic novel of the ’60s  (now known as romantic suspense), is one of my favorite books.   I reread it endlessly.   The narrator, Lucy, is an actress out of work and is happy to escape London in the rain to visit her sister, Phyllida, on Corfu, where her rich Roman banker husband owns a villa.

This witty, highly literate novel begins with references to The Tempest.  There is an epigraph from The Tempest in every chapter.  Phyllida tells Lucy that if her new baby is a boy, she will name him Prospero.

I laughed.  “Poor little chap, why on earth?  Oh, of course…  Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now.  Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.”

On the beach, Lucy swims with a playful dolphin, but someone shoots at it.  She jumps into the water to protect it, not caring if she is shot herself.  Her suspects?  Phyllida has three tenants, the famous actor Julian Gale and his son Max, a musician, in the Castello, and Godfrey Manning, a photographer, in a villa.  It takes a while to unravel who are the good guys and who are the bad, especially when Spiro, the son and brother of Phyllida’s female servants, dies in a boating accident.

Anyway, yes, eventually there is romance.  And there is much suspense.

Stewart always weaves travel into her mysteries.  Each one is set in an exotic place.  I never get tired of reading her descriptions of bays, beaches, woods, mountains, and cliffs.  And actually I can imagine being in her Corfu more readily than Lawrence Durrell’s or Gerald Durrell’s.

And so I’m on Corfu this weekend!

If only I could swim with that dolphin.

7 thoughts on “On Corfu: Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, & Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic

  1. A wonderfully enjoyable blog. I have read Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and asked myself if this travel book was not his real metier and he wrote novels out of it for money. George Sand has something written about how traveling in the imagination is richer than the reality.

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    • prefer his novels, but I did love this, too. I love his obsessed characters and their weird thing for gnosticism and weird philosophy. This strange travel narrative is goregeous, though.

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  2. Lawrence’s prose is dense, but I think I prefer it to the more simplistic writing of his brother. Mind you, I’ve recently been attempting some of his poetry and in all honesty it lost me most of the time….

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    • This is my first reading of Gerald, which I picked up only because it is also set in Corfu. Two writers could not be more different. Yes, I adore Lawrence Durrell. Sometimes I just let the language wash over me.

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  3. Pingback: Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael – mirabile dictu

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